Tom Fulks

‘SLO Progressives’ are a force to be reckoned with in local Democratic politics

Tom Fulks.
Tom Fulks.

Being called “enemies” by Donald Trump is motivational manna to Americans who voted against him.

Intending a magnanimous, unifying bear hug of a New Year’s Eve tweet (insert winky-face emoji here), Trump pronounced: “Happy New Year to all, including to my many enemies and those who have fought me and lost so badly they just don’t know what to do.”

Rather, the majority of Americans who oppose Trump see him as hugging the bear, boasting of his “very nice” Christmas card from man-crush Vladimir Putin. Russia Today dutifully covered the canoodling.

When the president-elect prefers Russians over more than half his fellow Americans, many in both countries take note.

In California, they take action. Throughout California last weekend, Democrats turned out in unprecedented droves to elect representatives for party seats that, for decades, were the exclusive bastion of insider-only operators.

Bernie Sanders Progressives ran slates of 14 candidates each in most of California’s 80 Assembly districts in a grand challenge to the party’s current power structure.

Alarmed by Trump’s Russophilia and outsized venality, progressive Democrats from across California cleaned their party’s house in preparation for the 2018 elections.

Locally, some 700 Democrats voted in an obscure party election that, in times past, snared only a handful of in-the-know voters. Fearing Trumpocalypse and inspired by Sanders to occupy government from the ground up, they waited two hours in a downpour to vote for change.

And change they got.

Progressives swept all 14 of the Assembly District Delegate (aka ADEM) seats in the 35th Assembly District, brushing aside the establishment candidates.

The 14 ADEM seats will be added to the regularly elected — and generally tamer — roster of the San Luis Obispo County Democratic Central Committee. (I’m a committee member elected to represent the 2nd Supervisory District.) According to the party, ADEM members are official “grassroots” activists setting the tone for state and national races.

But they could have significant influence locally, as the 2016 election results should encourage county Democrats to contest local offices.

Sanders won the county Democratic primary 52 to 46 percent over Hillary Clinton. Combined, Sanders and Clinton beat all Republican presidential candidates by 12.4 percent. In November, Clinton beat Trump in San Luis Obispo County by 8 points.

Local enthusiasm for change was driven by the “SLO Progressives,” an upstart bunch of Sanders faithful. The newcomers, guided by a young strategist named Nick Andre, resented what they consider hide-bound party apparatchiks, officious opacity and lack of vigor developing bench talent in local offices.

The razor-thin recent election of untested progressive Heidi Harmon as mayor of San Luis Obispo over incumbent Jan Marx, an establishment Dem, annoyed traditionalists and further emboldened progressives, many imbued with the Sanders “go-forth-and-take-over” religion.

In December, SLO Progressives were officially recognized by the county Democratic Central Committee as a “Democratic club,” marrying old-school Clinton supporters with the aggressive Bernie backers in a shotgun wedding — leaving some lingering bitterness among both families.

The old guard is rightfully protective of the thankless work it’s done over the past decade whipping the Central Committee into shape financially and organizationally. Many resent newbies disrespecting that history and disregarding the wisdom gleaned from that experience.

Friction surfaced when Central Committee Chairman Don Stewart publicly accused county Supervisor Adam Hill, a vocal supporter of the SLO Progressives, of creating a “circus” over being bypassed for a second time in three years as chair of the county Board of Supervisors.

“To be quite frank with you,” Stewart told The Tribune, “I’m not sure Adam deserves the chairmanship,” saying the party wouldn’t mobilize for Hill.

But progressive Dems disregarded Stewart’s inexplicable numbskullery, showing up in force Tuesday to support Hill, outnumbering his COLAB detractors about 3-1. In a display of graciousness and unity, both Harmon and Marx brushed past Stewart’s ill-considered impudence to speak on Hill’s behalf.

Stewart’s naked breach of “team-player” etiquette would get most party chairmen booted. But that’s local Dem politics, where a grating tone deafness among some entrenched insiders is now animating impatient progressives champing for action.

The future is here. Progressives are injecting an energized mix of militancy, tenacity and idealism into local Democratic politics.

If egos, individual agendas and personal ambitions are checked at the door — and respect for common cause and the greater good is the organizing principle — local Dems can be a potent force.

Those who get it will work together to target local elective offices in 2018, recruit candidates and wage smart campaigns.

They understand we’re all Americans — no matter what Trump says — and not each other’s “enemies.”

Liberal columnist Tom Fulks is a former reporter and opinion writer. His column runs in The Tribune every other Sunday, in rotation with conservative columnist Matthew Hoy.